Remember When The Thunder Were Not Supposed to Make the Playoffs

In a perfect world, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant would have ended their careers the same way Derek Fisher did. Fisher ended his career in a Thunder jersey, in the playoffs. He took one long look at the court, exhaled, turned around and then walked into the locker room and into the rest of his New York Knicks disaster life. If life was art, Westbrook and Durant would have embraced for the last time on the court and then walked into the Oklahoma City night. But it was a marriage that was never intended to last past the eight years of ups and downs. And so here it is with Russell Westbrook, heroic in his acceptance of the moment. He notched his 38th triple double by dropping 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in Orlando.

Oh, and by the way, the Thunder are a playoff team. No one expected this historic season from Westbrook, the front runner for MVP with pal James Harden. Only Westbrook knew what he could do.

And what has he done? Let’s refresh. 50 points three times. 40 or more points 12 times. Double digit rebounds 49 times. Double digit assists 45 times. Played every game. 35 minutes. Third best defensive rating of his career.

Many are not sold that his gaudy numbers means he’s the MVP. Sachin Gupta for one. He’s a ¬†consultant and former VP of Basketball Ops (76ers)

“You’d have to go back to 1988 to find a MVP who wasn’t on a top-4 team. Michael was in a class of his own that year. There isn’t anyone like ’88 Jordan this year so I do think the race should be down to a player on the true championship contending teams.”

Meaning no MVP for you Westbrook. This from Dean Oliver, VP of data science, TruMedia Networks:

“If it’s Westbrook , I’d be disappointed. I wouldn’t call it silly but I’d say that people are falling for story line over substance. And an overly simple story line at that. If Westbrook wins, people are falling for the stats that are lying.”

With apologies to Mr. Oliver, there isn’t much alternative facts to 38 triple doubles, 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He is taking 24 shots a game and isn’t really efficient at 42% but he manically pulled his team into the playoffs by himself, a feat only LeBron James could pull off.

Westbrook’s ascendancy is a story in and of itself. He played second fiddle to Kevin Love at UCLA and when he came out of college there were a lot of skeptics. What exactly was his position? At the draft combine, he made an instant impression with his explosiveness, so much so, a likely 11th or 12th pick in the draft fell up to number four and OKC. Since then, it’s been a work in progress for Westbrook to rein in his natural speed and balance his shooting guard skills while learning the point guard position.

He is the best rebounding guard in the NBA. Last year, there was Chris Paul, there was Steph Curry and there was Russell Westbrook- most effective on the court at the point guard position in 2015-16. This year there is Chris Paul, there is Steph Curry and there is Russell Westbrook, most effective on the court at the point guard position (Real Plus-Minus).

This isn’t really a surprise, Westbrook upping his game. When Kevin Durant was not active, his teammate Westbrook averaged 28 points a game. In fact, the case can be made that in the next 15 months Westbrook has the least amount of pressure of any NBA star. Whatever he does is gravy because he stayed. It is now on Sam Presti to find him some help, and news flash, Victor Oladipo isn’t the golden ticket.

Stubborn, headstrong, dramatic, explosive and emotional are all adjectives that describe Russell Westbrook.  Westbrook made sure that the fans of OKC knew where his loyalties were. But the elephant in the room is his free agency in 2018. The Thunder, as currently constructed, are not contenders. They need an elite player to partner with Russ. Otherwise it is this same scenario, sixth seed and maybe second round of the playoffs, then vacation. There is a reason the Warriors have blown the Thunder out, even without Durant, in every meeting. The Thunder would be the Lakers without Westbrook.

But Westbrook is here. He stayed. In a perfect world, it really shouldn’t matter, these fan fights about stay or leave. Players should have the luxury we all have to move around and go to the job and city that fits them. But players represent a city identity that seeps down into the mundane nuances of our everyday lives. When they reject a team, they are rejecting us.

“There’s no place else I’d rather be than Oklahoma City. You guys have basically raised me. I’ve been here since I’ve been 18, 19 years old. You guys did nothing but great things for me. Through the good and bad, you guys supported me through it all and I appreciate it. Definitely when I had the opportunity to be loyal to you guys, that’s the No. 1 option. Loyalty is something I stand by.” (Russell Westbrook)

Westbrook. Loyalty. History. MVP?

 

photo via llananba